The Life: Ecumenism in experience, sisters share their spiritually enriching encounters

This story appears in the The Life feature series. View the full series.

The panelists for August responded on a very personal level, sharing their life experiences that led them into an appreciation of other religions and ecumenical experiences. The panel responded to the following question:

There are many entryways to ecumenical experience. Describe the door that let you, personally, walk into a sacred experience with or in a different religion or denomination.


Thomas Limacher is a Sister of the Holy Cross of Menzingen, Switzerland. She ministered in South Africa during apartheid and later worked at the Swiss Pilgrim Place of Saint Brother Claus, a famous shrine and pilgrim destination. She now does development work in Missions Procure, an intercongregational nongovernmental organization that supports the projects of her sisters worldwide.

I remember well the first time I entered our Protestant church in my home village. As a baker, Dad delivered special bread to the pastor. One day, he took me with him. I was an extremely curious little girl, so I definitely wanted to take a look in the "strange church."

I received the shock of my life: a wooden table, a pulpit and a big book in a bare rectangular room. That was it. Accustomed to the stained glass or painted windows — storytellers to a small kid — as well as the uncountable little golden turrets of many altars, the statues and the picturesque "heaven" (a blue ceiling painted with lots of flowers) of the neo-Gothic parish building, I only felt pity for the Protestant churchgoers.

In my teens, Dad, a stern Roman Catholic, always praised his Protestant customers as the noblest people he ever met. Some of their children were attending our school; some went to their own schools. To us, they looked a bit exotic. But my father's remarks gave me something to think about. Maybe he was the original cause of my longing to experience other people's religion.

Today, we have good ecumenical interactions in Switzerland. Here in Menzingen, we are lucky to have a married couple as pastors. They do their pastoral work together and have services for everyone. They use ecumenical prayers. Barbara and Christoph's sermons are profound and well prepared. I think they express the signs of the times for both Catholics and Protestants.

At a three-month Bible school in Israel in 1989, I met a lot of Jewish and Muslim people deeply rooted in their beliefs. Our teacher, Fr. Feneberg, introduced us to both monotheistic religions, enlarging not only our Bible knowledge but our minds.

In India, our community's institutions are open for people of all religions. Once, I was attending a wedding of a young Hindu woman, and her mother asked me to bless her daughter and pray over her as she left for the husband's house. Several times, I was taken to Hindu temples, and I enjoyed the colors and the people offering all kind of goods to their goddesses.

Another time, I attended a Muslim "baptism." It was touching how the Quran reading in the biggest room of the house was the main function of the girl's great day.

Dad planted the seed, and my curiosity about other people continues to broaden my heart.

Marilyn Lacey is a Sister of Mercy from California. She transitioned from high school teaching into refugee work, first in camps and later in domestic welcome and resettlement with Catholic Charities in San Jose. An author and speaker, she founded and directs Mercy Beyond Borders, an international nonprofit that works with women and girls in places of extreme poverty

I grew up in a California suburb filled with Christians. Our churches taught that Jesus was the only true path, the sole ticket to heaven. The rest of the world? Pagans.

That arrogance began to crack when I reached middle school and started questioning things like the alleged fate of unbaptized babies (i.e., limbo), but it really crumbled when I stepped out into the larger world. There, I met human beings whose compassion outstripped my own yet whose God answered to different names.

Those "aha!" moments usually came in the midst of daily life when I was with people very different from myself.

Example 1: I'm working in a refugee camp 12 hours by train from Bangkok. It's filled with thousands of devout Buddhist refugees from Laos. The camp is dusty in the dry season, swampy during the monsoons, and always hot. What thrives there? Mosquitoes! Not just annoying, buzzing mosquitoes — no, dangerous, death-dealing, malarial mosquitoes. I spent my nights squashing them, spraying them, killing them without any qualms. Yet my Buddhist colleagues would not take the life of any living thing, not even a mosquito. All life should flourish.

That's being pro-life. Buddhists taught me that.

Example 2: One day, I saw a malnourished refugee carrying a small turtle in his hand. "Ah," I said, "good turtle soup." But he answered, smiling: "No, I am setting it free!" He gently deposited the turtle outside the barbed-wire fence that ringed the refugee camp and watched it amble off into a freedom he himself did not have. Then he said simply, "That turtle never hurt anyone. I want it to be free."

That's recognizing that all creation matters. We are all connected. Refugees taught me that.

Example 3: My friend's father was a Sufi master who read mystical poems to him as a child instead of bedtime stories. The Sufis, followers of a branch of Islam, were the original whirling dervishes. They pray by dancing.

As a Sister of Mercy, I know much of the Judeo-Christian Scriptures by heart. I meditate in stillness. Sufis taught me to let go, to get caught up in the rhythm of life's griefs and glories. The Sufis, like the saints, taught me about joyous abandonment into the mystery of the One who has many names.

That's being prayerful. Sufis taught me that.

How narrow my experience of God would be if I were limited only to one lens!

Margaret Gonsalves is a Sister for Christian Community and feminist theologian active in the Ecclesia of Women in Asia and Indian Women Theologian's Forum. As founder of ANNNI Charitable Trust, she networks with nongovernmental organizations to run free residential programs in intensive spoken English, sustainable development skills, and workshops for the empowerment of indigenous girls and women.

I was born and brought up in an environment of Indian-ness.

There are many entryways to my village, Almodarwadi. At one entrance, there is a Hindu temple dedicated to Lord Shani. At another entrance, there is a Mahalaxmi Temple, and at another is Our Lady of Remedy Church. Near our paddy field is a huge masjid (mosque).

Every morning, I heard a symphony of bells and devotional songs from Hindu temples and the Catholic Church and adhan (call to worship) prayer from a mosque minaret.

From sunrise to sunset every Saturday, I heard devotional songs played at the Shani temple. The songs, memorized, formed my conscience. During Ganesha and Diwali festivals, I would go to the Hindu neighbor's house to share food (prasad) offered to the deities and join Muslim families for the grand Eid meal.

My parents never discouraged me from celebrating feasts with people from other religions. From my childhood, I grew in the theology of Oneness.

A lesbian couple introduced me to feminist theology, and a gay couple raised money for my ministry through a musical concert. I had wonderful opportunities to participate in or give retreats to various types of groups, including LGBTQIA people.

In my early days of responding to my call within a call, I began realizing I am an "angel of presence." I began disidentifying with many of the blindly internalized beliefs that no longer helped me grow in wholeness. This helped me recognize true human nature, the human potentials of holiness dwelling in all!

A Sanskrit aphorism, "I am the Infinite Reality," underlines that everything is sacred and everything is secular. This symphony of sacred secularity led me to participate in a Native American Sun Dance in Ithaca, New York. It was like a 100-hour retreat, dancing around a tree with no food, no water — just suffering on behalf of others. On the third day, I profoundly felt the cry of Jesus, "I thirst," when my tongue stuck to my palate.

I am becoming aware: Having great capacity for compassionate love and forgiveness, we all reveal God. I became aware: Interfaith dialogue alleviates the demonization of any religion and brings us closer to the realization of Jesus' prayer: that all may be one.

Every authentic spiritual tradition is a sacred avenue to a shared Universal Reality, from which flows healing of personal and planetary problems.

Mercy Shumbamhini belongs to the Congregation of Jesus. With a background in accounting, social work, administration and finance, she has held leadership positions in community development and lectures at the university level in social work and theology. She is regional director of her congregation and president of the Conference of Major Superiors in Zimbabwe.

I was raised in an ecumenical household. I was born into a family where my parents were Catholics, my grandmother an Anglican, two aunts were Methodist and a third was Salvation Army. My family was the door that let me, personally, walk into a sacred experience with different denominations.

One of the greatest joys resulting from my ecumenical life as a girl has been the love shared in the family and the respect for other denominations. I would go with my mother to the Catholic church and with my grandmother to the Anglican church. I would also go to the Methodist church with my aunt.

My grandmother always told each of us to love and respect all people. My grandmother's authentic way of living for God and for her neighbors fascinated me to the point that I never knew the difference between our church and other denominations. Grandmother's charism of unity opened up this understanding that God's love does not have preferences among people. This became the foundation for my vocation journey.

As I grew up, this sense of unity deepened. When I went to primary school, which was Methodist, I had no problem in joining the prayers. The Methodist hymns expressed deep union with God. At my village, we all gathered at Christmas, Easter and New Year to share our faith, highlighting above all Jesus' new commandment, "Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another" (John 13:34).

I had numerous significant interfaith experiences during my youth. Perhaps the most meaningful was the opportunity to lead Scripture Union in secondary school. Our Scripture Union was composed of students from different denominations. We prayed, worked together and shared our spiritual treasures. We did community outreach programs, such as helping the elderly people in surrounding communities. We also visited and prayed with patients of diverse faith backgrounds. These experiences have affected my personal and religious life.

I suppose Christian interdenominational experience was natural to me because of my own circumstances, but I was not exposed to other religions like Islam and Hinduism until I went to Kwekwe, Zimbabwe, in 1997. There, I worked at Mary Ward Children's Home, where I met Muslim and Hindu friends who greatly supported our children.

I am very grateful to live during the era of Pope Francis, who encourages us to foster a "culture of encounter" with others.

Clarence N. Uzogara is a member of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus. Born in Nigeria and raised in Ghana, she has ministered in both countries, teaching science and other subjects and serving as school bursar and administrator. She is studying educational administration in graduate school at the University of Cape Coast, Ghana.

In my seven years as the headmistress of a school in Delta State, Nigeria, I worked with parents and teachers of different religious and cultural backgrounds. Within two years, our congregations' two schools and a hospital were part of the local community that included Urhobos, Christians of other denominations, and Muslims.

We had a Grotto of Our Lady of Nigeria in front of the school, and we prayed the "Catholic way," as did our teachers and students. I was staying late at school one day when a teacher who had already gone home came back to tell me that one of my teachers who was pregnant was asking for me. When we arrived at her home, she had already given birth to a baby boy. A group of people from her church, the Celestial Church of Christ, were present (we called them "white garment people").

The teacher had come to school that morning — even though she was on leave — and visited the grotto to pray for a safe delivery; she had been in labor for two days. As soon as she got home, the midwife helped deliver her baby. I was lost for words seeing my teacher's faith in Mary. The church members expressed appreciation for the Catholic sisters and the good work we were doing for their communities.

I also had some Muslim friends, a beautiful couple married for years, but with no child of their own, with nieces enrolled in my school. Our school was known for the love and attention we gave to children from Muslim backgrounds, so many attended Our Lady of Nigeria School.

On a routine visit, once my friend Halima asked me to pray with her. What prayer would not compromise my faith or hers? So I said, "Allah God who knows us more than we do, bless Halima and give her what she needs from you." After that, we would pray together, either in my office or in her home.

To my joy, later she did conceive and bore twins, two girls. On the day of their naming ceremony, she and her husband invited me over. Guess what names they gave the twins? Miriam and Mariamo, both after Our Lady.

These two experiences are sacred and treasured memories. What a beautiful world we could have if we let go of what divides us as God's children, like denominations and religious differences.

Amy Hereford is a Sister of St. Joseph from St. Louis. Her background includes teaching, communication, management and administration. As an author, theologian and civil and canon lawyer, she consults with religious communities and charitable organizations around the world, addressing technical concerns of religious institutes and exploring the evolving nature of religious life.

"Are you a friend?" asked Margaret, a kindly gray-haired woman, as I tentatively walked in for my first Quaker meeting.

I'm friendly, I thought, though I wasn't sure how to respond. Sensing my awkwardness, she welcomed me and asked if I had been to a Quaker meeting before. No, I said, as I realized she was asking, "Are you a Friend?" as in the Religious Society of Friends, the formal name of Quakers.

Margaret set me at ease by giving me a flyer and quick overview of the meeting. In a Quaker meeting for worship, Friends and attendees sit in reverent and expectant silence. Together, we gently waited on the presence and guidance of God, and occasionally, someone was moved to rise and share an insight or a prayer. 

We sat in pews arranged around an open space in the center, where the altar might be in a Catholic church. That open space in the center symbolized for me our openness to the Light, both individual and collective. By meeting in that sacred space, we collectively acknowledged the centrality of God and our openness to be re-created in the image of the Divine and to be guided by the Light.

The Quakers also participated in Winter Outreach, a collaborative project by many city churches to take turns providing shelter for people who are homeless on cold winter nights. On those nights, we moved the pews aside and filled the entire worship space with cots. We welcomed our guests and provided a hot meal and an opportunity for a shower before they bedded down in the worship space.

The following Sunday, we gathered again, our worship space having been blessed by the presence of these homeless brothers and sisters cradled in the heart of the Divine for that brief respite on a cold winter night.

My heart and my life have been forever expanded by my experience with Quakers. The Quakers and the Sisters of St. Joseph were both founded in the middle of the 17th century. This may be why the Quaker meeting for worship resembles my community's form of shared prayer, the Sharing of the Heart. My sojourn among the Quakers makes me a better human being, a better Christian and a better Sister of St. Joseph.

Read more in Global Sisters Report's The Life series.